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 Title

The Present Age - Excerpts

 Synopsis

A deliberation on envy and its effect of public leveling - stifling or hindering leadership and distinction. Excerpted from his essay "The Present Age".

 Author

Soren Kierkegaard

 Author Notes

Danish religious philosopher and critic of rationalism (Hegel et al), sometimes regarded as the founder of existentialist philosophy

 Essay - 1/1/1846

The established order continues, but our reflection and passionlessness finds its satisfaction in ambiguity. No person wishes to destroy the power of the king, but if little by little it can be reduced to nothing but a fiction, then everyone would cheer the king. No person wishes to pull down the pre-eminent, but if at the same time pre-eminence could be demonstrated to be a fiction, then everyone would be happy. No person wishes to abandon Christian terminology, but they can secretly change it so that it doesn't require decision or action. And so they are unrepentant, since they have not pulled down anything. People do not desire any more to have a strong king than they do a hero-liberator than they do religious authority, for they innocently wish the established order to continue, but in a reflective way they more or less know that the established order no longer continues. ...

The reflective tension this creates constitutes itself into a new principle, and just as in an age of passion enthusiasm is the unifying principle, so in a passionless age of reflection envy is the negative-unifying principle. This must not be understood as a moral term, but rather, the idea of reflection, as it were, is envy, and envy is therefore twofold: it is selfish in the individual and in the society around him. The envy of reflection in the individual hinders any passionate decision he might make; and if he wishes to free himself from reflection, the reflection of society around him re-captures him. ...

Envy constitutes the principle of characterlessness, which from its misery sneaks up until it arrives at some position, and it protects itself with the concession that it is nothing. The envy of characterlessness never understands that distinction is really a distinction, nor does it understand itself in recognizing distinction negatively, but rather reduces it so that it is no longer distinction; and envy defends itself not only from distinction, but against that distinction which is to come.

Envy which is establishing itself is a leveling, and while a passionate age pushes forward, establishing new things and destroying others, raising and tearing down, a reflective, passionless age does the opposite, it stifles and hinders, it levels. This leveling is a silent, mathematical, abstract process which avoids upheavals. ... Leveling at its maximum is like the stillness of death, where one can hear one's own heartbeat, a stillness like death, into which nothing can penetrate, in which everything sinks, powerless.

One person can head a rebellion, but one person cannot head this leveling process, for that would make him a leader and he would avoid being leveled. Each individual can in his little circle participate in this leveling, but it is an abstract process, and leveling is abstraction conquering individuality. The leveling in modern times is the reflective equivalent of fate in the ancient times. The dialectic of ancient times tended towards leadership (the great man over the masses and the free man over the slave); the dialectic of Christianity tends, at least until now, towards representation (the majority views itself in the representative, and is liberated in the knowledge that it is represented in that representative, in a kind of self-knowledge); the dialectic of the present age tends towards equality, and its most consequent but false result is leveling, as the negative unity of the negative relationship between individuals.

Everyone should see now that leveling has a fundamental meaning: the category of "generation" supersedes the category of the "individual." During ancient times the mass of individuals had this value: that it made valuable the outstanding individual. ... In ancient times, the single individual in the masses signified nothing; the outstanding individual signified them all. In the present age, the tendency is towards a mathematical equality. ...

In order for leveling really to occur, first it is necessary to bring a phantom into existence, a spirit of leveling, a huge abstraction, an all-embracing something that is nothing, an illusion--the phantom of the public. . . . The public is the real Leveling-Master, rather than the leveler itself, for leveling is done by something, and the public is a huge nothing.

The public is an idea, which would never have occurred to people in ancient times, for the people themselves en masse in corpora took steps in any active situation, and bore responsibility for each individual among them, and each individual had to personally, without fail, present himself and submit his decision immediately to approval or disapproval. When first a clever society makes concrete reality into nothing, then the Media creates that abstraction, "the public," which is filled with unreal individuals, who are never united nor can they ever unite simultaneously in a single situation or organization, yet still stick together as a whole. The public is a body, more numerous than the people which compose it, but this body can never be shown, indeed it can never have only a single representation, because it is an abstraction. Yet this public becomes larger, the more the times become passionless and reflective and destroy concrete reality; this whole, the public, soon embraces everything. ...

The public is not a people, it is not a generation, it is not a simultaneity, it is not a community, it is not a society, it is not an association, it is not those particular men over there, because all these exist because they are concrete and real; however, no single individual who belongs to the public has any real commitment; some times during the day he belongs to the public, namely, in those times in which he is nothing; in those times that he is a particular person, he does not belong to the public. Consisting of such individuals, who as individuals are nothing, the public becomes a huge something, a nothing, an abstract desert and emptiness, which is everything and nothing. ...

The Media is an abstraction (because a newspaper is not concrete and only in an abstract sense can be considered an individual), which in association with the passionlessness and reflection of the times creates that abstract phantom, the public, which is the actual leveler. ... More and more individuals will, because of their indolent bloodlessness, aspire to become nothing, in order to become the public, this abstract whole, which forms in this ridiculous manner: the public comes into existence because all its participants become third parties. This lazy mass, which understands nothing and does nothing, this public gallery seeks some distraction, and soon gives itself over to the idea that everything which someone does, or achieves, has been done to provide the public something to gossip about. ... The public has a dog for its amusement. That dog is the Media. If there is someone better than the public, someone who distinguishes himself, the public sets the dog on him and all the amusement begins. This biting dog tears up his coat-tails, and takes all sort of vulgar liberties with his leg--until the public bores of it all and calls the dog off. That is how the public levels.


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